I am writing this story for all of you out there who, like myself, have “faint” fingerprints that can’t be read by machines. I know you’re out there, and I also know that if you’re planning on traveling to Japan, you’ll likely be wondering what will happen when they fingerprint you at the border, which they do for all foreign nationals entering the country. Quite frankly, I had a hell of a time getting reliable information on the topic when I was planning my trip to Japan, so I wanted to write a detailed account of my experiences to help out my faint fingerprinted brothers and sisters out there in the hope that this will save you some of the frustration I faced when researching the topic.
Looking for Answers
In 2008, I applied to work for a local school district. Since the job would involve working with children, the hiring process included an extensive background check. I had to get fingerprinted which involved putting my fingers on a fairly sophisticated “livescan” machine at the police station. That was the day I discovered that, apparently, I’m a freak of nature.
I had gone my whole life until that point thinking I was a perfectly normal person, but on that fateful day at the police station, I discovered that my fingerprints can’t be read by machines. The lady who was helping me tried and tried, but no matter how hard she crushed my fingers against the scanner or how many substances she sprayed on my fingers, they kept coming up with a little red X over and over and over again. Eventually, they gave up and submitted the fingerprints anyway. Two weeks later, I got a call that they had been rejected and that I needed to come back and submit myself to the torture all over again. This process repeated itself three times before I was finally allowed to do a “traditional background check” that didn’t involve fingerprints, and it was a miracle I was approved in time to start my job before the school year began.
Since then, I’ve been frustrated and wary of all fingerprint machines. Much to my dismay, I’ve noticed that fingerprint scanners are only becoming more and more common in the world. The day my gym started using fingerprint scanners for check-in was the day my life at the gym got more frustrating. Now I have to wait around until a staff member who is no longer used to having to check people in goes through a maddeningly slow process and then tries to convince me (for the millionth time) to use their fingerprint check-in because “it’s so easy”, as if I’m only doing this because I want to. My iPhone now has an extra “security” feature where it can scan my fingerprint, except it doesn’t work for me, so I guess extra security features are out.
I cringe every time I hear that I’m going to need to get fingerprinted. In fact, I haven’t even signed up for the TSA Pre-Check program even though I’m a frequent traveler, because the approval process involves getting fingerprinted and I’m acutely aware of how frustrating that will be.
Knowing all of this, you can imagine my dismay when I found out that Japan fingerprints all foreign visitors upon arrival as part of their entry process. I had always wanted to visit Japan, and after planning my whole trip, booking everything, spending quite a lot of money, and getting really excited I couldn’t help but have a nagging feeling that I was in for a world of trouble upon arrival.
Since I’m diligent about this sort of thing, I took to the internet to research what had happened to others in my situation, but while the internet is usually such a great resource, I could only find a few tales of people who “just didn’t want to be fingerprinted” because of some privacy concern and were voicing their anger.
I took to travel forums and asked the internet for advice. The answers I got were mostly filled with good intentions but not many real, concrete facts. People speculated that they would likely just let me through after trying, but nobody who responded had actually experienced having their fingerprints scanned at the border. One man decided it was appropriate to lecture me on the security benefits and why Japan fingerprints people at the border, which was not only unhelpful, but also obnoxiously obvious that he had only read the title of my question, “Question on getting fingerprinted upon arrival in Japan”, and hadn’t ever actually read what my question was about. Others sent me links to the Japanese embassy, the Japanese consulate, and the U.S. department of state ‘travel’ website.
My next course of action was to try and contact some of these places and ask them directly. A Japanese tourism questions website wasn’t helpful. I emailed Japanese immigration authority and they told me to contact the embassy or consulate. The Japanese consulate and embassy (I contacted both) referred me to the security department at Tokyo Haneda airport. I checked their website, but it said to call with any questions as they didn’t have an email contact. That’s how I found myself calling Japan from my cell phone. When I did, a man answered the phone and said something in Japanese. Since I don’t speak Japanese, I said, “ummmm….is it possible to speak to somebody who speaks English?”. Mercifully, the man understood and switched to broken English. I explained my issue to him and he listened intently. When I finished, he reassured me that they would try to scan and it would be no problem, but because of the language barrier and the fact that his English was obviously not fluent coupled with the fact that my Japanese is limited to a few phrases only, I ended the conversation feeling hopeful but still not convinced that I wouldn’t have problems at the border.
Still, I had reached the point where I had contacted every resource and searched the internet for answers as much as I could, so at that point there was nothing left to do but get on a plane and hope for the best on the other side.
Arriving in Japan
I’m happy to report that all my worry was for nothing. I showed up and very nervously awaited the moment where I had to be fingerprinted, but when it came down to it, they just had me put my fingers on the machine and they scanned. He had me try one extra time, but ultimately just let me in and said, “welcome to Japan”. No worries at all. I think sometimes I let myself get all up inside my own head a bit much. Ultimately, there was nothing to worry about. So if you’re like me and you’re worried about this, don’t worry about it. You’ll be ok. I promise.